Study Suggests Weight Loss Outcomes Improve when Participants Increase Breakfast Eating but Not Eating Frequency

By Loretta Waldman

The interplay between breakfast eating, eating frequency, and long-term weight loss was the focus of a recent study by Associate Professor of Allied Health Sciences and InCHIP Principal Investigator Tricia Leahey, PhD. In a paper published in January 2017 in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Dr. Leahey and her co-authors shared the results of a two-year study suggesting that increasing breakfast eating while simultaneously reducing or maintaining eating frequency, may influence weight management outcomes.

Their findings built on previous research that looked at breakfast eating alone in connection with weight loss. What makes this study novel is that it simultaneously examines breakfast eating and  frequency of food consumption.  “These two areas haven’t spoken to each other much,” explained Dr. Leahey, Principal Investigator of the study. “Breakfast eating has been one body of work, and eating frequency has been another. This is the first study that looks at both in concert to see if they interact with one another.”

Dr. Leahey specializes in obesity research with a focus on lifestyle interventions, including behavioral strategies to promote healthy eating, reduce caloric intake, and increase physical activity. Her collaborators on this study were Rena Wing, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, and Maureen Megson, an UConn undergraduate Honors student who graduated in 2016 and is first author on this paper.

This study was part of a larger trial, on which Dr. Leahey is the Principal Investigator, examining the effects of adding behavioral weight loss strategies to Shape Up Rhode Island (SURI). SURI is a statewide exercise and weight loss program founded in 2005 by Rajiv Kumar, MD that uses teamwork and peer support to increase healthy behavior. A total of 230 study participants were recruited for the trial through local employers and mass media; eligibility was based on age, body mass index and other criteria. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three invention conditions for a period of three months: (1) SURI alone, (2) SURI and an Internet behavioral weight loss program, or (3) SURI, an Internet behavioral weight loss program, and optional group meetings.

This study examined the effects of breakfast eating and total eating frequency on baseline Body Mass Index (BMI) and weight loss outcomes in adults with overweight or obesity who were seeking weight loss treatment. The results revealed that breakfast eating during treatment was significantly associated with better weight loss outcomes. More specifically, those who achieved the 5 percent NIH benchmark for a clinically meaningful weight loss during treatment had greater increases in breakfast eating compared to those who did not achieve this benchmark. Additionally, among participants who increased breakfast eating, those who had either no change or a decrease in total daily eating frequency (meals plus snacks) were more likely to achieve a 5 percent weight loss compared to those who had an increase in total daily eating frequency.

The findings are consistent with previous trials showing breakfast eating improves weight loss outcomes and with findings of the National Weight Control Registry demonstrating that breakfast eating is an important behavior for successful long-term weight control. They are also consistent with other studies that found no evidence that frequency of food consumption alone has an effect on overall weight loss outcomes.

This study opens up some novel areas for future research, according to Dr. Leahey, and underscores the importance of taking eating frequency variables into consideration when prescribing breakfast eating.  “The research on the effects of breakfast eating on weight loss outcomes has been somewhat mixed. This study suggests that we may get more consistent results that are more conclusive, if we take into consideration frequency of eating when it comes to breakfast eating. Instead of only suggesting people eat breakfast more often, it’s also important to tell them to keep an eye on overall intake, so it doesn’t increase as well. So add in the breakfast, take out a snack or just make sure you’re not adding in extra meal times.”

The findings from this study are very relevant to research that Dr. Leahey is now doing with young adults, aged 18 to 25. Young adults tend to engage in several negative health behaviors, such as drinking, regularly eating fast food, and skipping breakfast, all of which contribute to weight gain and may adversely affect weight management efforts. The results from Dr. Leahey’s adult breakfast eating study could inform weight management strategies that are suggested to young adults.